The UK Supreme Court has ruled that a Christian bakery in Northern Ireland did not break discrimination laws when it refused to bake a cake with a slogan supporting gay marriage.
The result is a major boost for freedom of speech. However, it does not overturn previous cases against Christian hotel owners or marriage registrars.
Handing down their ruling on 10 October, the five judges were unanimous in their judgment. The judges said that equality law does not compel people to say something with which they profoundly disagree.
President of the Supreme Court, Lady Hale, said the Ashers bakery did not discriminate against the customer, Mr Lee, because of his sexual orientation. She said, ‘They would have refused to make such a cake for any customer, irrespective of their sexual orientation.
‘Their objection was to the message on the cake, not to the personal characteristics of Mr Lee’. And she added, ‘Accordingly, this court holds that there was no discrimination on the ground of the sexual orientation of Mr Lee’.
Ashers Bakery’s general manager Daniel McArthur spoke outside the court on the day of the ruling. He said, ‘I know a lot of people will be glad to hear this ruling today, because this ruling protects freedom of speech and freedom of conscience for everyone’.
Ashers have been supported throughout the many years of the ongoing legal battle by The Christian Institute. Spokesman Simon Calvert said, ‘This is a ruling with implications far beyond one little bakery in Belfast.
‘Equality laws are there to protect people from discrimination, not to force people to promote causes they oppose. We are delighted that the Court has strongly endorsed that view’.
He added, ‘I would like to pay tribute to the McArthur family and the gentle and respectful way they have conducted themselves throughout this process. They have a peace that comes from trusting in God whatever the outcome and it has been a privilege for all of us at The Christian Institute to stand with them’.
The case was brought against Ashers by the taxpayer funded Equality Commission for Northern Ireland at a reported cost of £250,000. It reportedly cost £200,000 to defend the Ashers. The Equality Commission has questioned the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Dr Michael Wardlow, the organisation’s chief commissioner, said, ‘There is a concern that this judgement may raise uncertainty about the application of equality law in the commercial sphere, both about what businesses can do and what customers may expect’.
But the Supreme Court president Lady Hale said, ‘This conclusion is not in any way to diminish the need to protect gay people and people who support gay marriage from discrimination.
‘It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief. But that is not what happened in this case’.
See also this month’s Comment – Victory against compelled speech, but it should never have got this far, see p.3.